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Prison Abolition

Envisioning Abolition Democracy

The full text of this Essay may be found by clicking on the PDF link to the left.

What is, so to speak, the object of abolition?

Not so much the abolition of prisons but the abolition of a society that could have prisons, that could have slavery, that could have the wage, and therefore not abolition as the elimination of anything but abolition as the founding of a new society.

Fred Moten & Stefano Harney, The University and the Undercommons1×1. Fred Moten & Stefano Harney, The University and the Undercommons: Seven Theses, 22 Soc. Text 101, 114 (2004).


For decades, police in Chicago chained people in their custody to the wall in dark, windowless rooms and subjected their captives to beatings, electric shocks, anal rape, and racial abuse.2×2. See Chicago Torture Archive, Chi. Stud., https://www.chicagostudiesresourceportal.com/resources-portal/2018/2/5/chicago-torture-archive [https://perma.cc/5Q2A-UUCT] (describing the creation of the Chicago Torture Archive, an archive comprised of testimonies of torture victims, torture case findings, documents of police officers sued for torture, media articles, special reports, summaries of evidence, and City Council hearings, among other sources); Juleyka Lantigua-Williams, A Digital Archive Documents Two Decades of Torture by Chicago Police, The Atlantic (Oct. 26, 2016), https://www.theatlantic.com/politics/archive/2016/10/10000-files-on-chicago-police-torture-decades-now-online/504233/ [https://perma.cc/YA8F-SECB]; see also Spencer Ackerman, Homan Square Revealed: How Chicago Police “Disappeared” 7,000 People, The Guardian (Oct. 19, 2015, 8:30 AM), https://www.theguardian.com/us-news/2015/oct/19/homan-square-chicago-police-disappeared-thousands [https://perma.cc/VLC7-PXD6]; Flint Taylor, Opinion, Homan Square Is Chicago’s New “House of Screams,” The Guardian (Apr. 13, 2016, 7:30 AM), https://www.theguardian.com/commentisfree/2016/apr/13/homan-square-chicago-police-station-house-of-screams [https://perma.cc/Z8UL-CZY2]. In July 2016, members of the #LetUsBreathe Collective, created in the aftermath of numerous police killings in Chicago and elsewhere, occupied vacant lots adjacent to the Chicago Police Department’s Homan Square facility — one of the locations where such abuse occurred.3×3. See Derrick Clifton, How Protests in Ferguson Inspired the Occupation of “Freedom Square,” Chi. Reader (Aug. 9, 2016), https://www.chicagoreader.com/chicago/freedom-square-homan-square-occupation-ferguson/Content?oid=23089791 [https://perma.cc/64RW-Y9Z5]. The Collective sought justice, not through recourse to the criminal courts or civil litigation, but instead by reconceptualizing justice in connection with efforts to end reliance on imprisonment and policing.4×4. See id.; Mission & Vision, #LetUsBreathe Collective, https://www.letusbreathecollective.com/mission-vision [https://perma.cc/9A6T-QD4M]. The organizers redesignated Homan Square — which shares a name with the Chicago slumlord Samuel Homan5×5. See Taylor, supra note 2; see also Joe Allen, People Wasn’t Made to Burn 148, 162, 168 (2011) (describing Homan’s controversial and exploitative practices as a Chicago landlord).  — “Freedom Square.”6×6. Maya Dukmasova, Abolish the Police? Organizers Say It’s Less Crazy than It Sounds, Chi. Reader (Aug. 25, 2016), https://www.chicagoreader.com/chicago/police-abolitionist-movement-alternatives-cops-chicago/Content? [https://perma.cc/MNB5-ZJGA]. The organizers’ idea was to begin to realize on a small scale what the scholar and activist Professor Angela Davis, echoing the words of W.E.B. Du Bois,7×7. See W.E.B. Du Bois, Black Reconstruction in America 163–66 (Routledge 2017) (1935). has called “abolition democracy.”8×8. Angela Y. Davis, Abolition Democracy 95–96 (2005); see also Angela Y. Davis, Are Prisons Obsolete? 105–15 (2003) (discussing an array of abolitionist alternatives to existing systems of policing and incarceration).

Organizers in Freedom Square and across the city amplified the penal-abolitionist platforms of the Movement for Black Lives and Black Youth Project 100 (BYP100),9×9. See Platform, Movement for Black Lives, https://policy.m4bl.org/platform/ [https://perma.cc/BW55-7Y9V] [hereinafter Movement for Black Lives]; BYP100 Announces Release of the Agenda to Build Black Futures, Black Youth Project 100 (Jan. 15, 2016), https://byp100.org/bbf/ [https://perma.cc/G7G4-98EU]. demanding that the state divest from policing and imprisonment and invest in new forms of more equitable and just coexistence.10×10. See Dukmasova, supra note 6. Freedom Square was to be an experiment in which participants would “imagine a world without police,”11×11. #LetUsBreathe Collective, Freedom Square Occupation & Block Party, Facebook (Jul. 22, 2016), https://www.facebook.com/events/257503834630695/ [https://perma.cc/PE4D-76S7]. a world where the 1.4 billion–dollar Chicago police budget12×12. Chi., Ill., Annual Appropriation Ordinance for the Year 2019, at 121 (Nov. 14, 2018). would be directed away from detaining human beings and toward a democratic revitalization of public education, employment, restorative justice, mental health, housing, addiction treatment, arts, and nutrition.13×13. Clifton, supra note 3. Before they disbanded, those engaged in the Freedom Square experiment provided meals to hundreds of people each day and offered educational workshops, clothing, books, and play spaces for neighborhood children.14×14. See id.

Similar efforts took shape beyond Chicago, from New York City, where organizers launched a protest called “Abolition Square” that same summer,15×15. Ben Norton, Black Lives Matter Activists Launch Abolition Square Encampment, Demanding Reparations, End to Broken Windows Policing, Salon (Aug. 5, 2016, 3:59 PM), https://www.salon.com/2016/08/05/black-lives-matter-activists-launch-abolition-square-encampment-demanding-reparations-end-to-broken-windows-policing/ [https://perma.cc/HA4Y-LSN2]. to Los Angeles, where Black Lives Matter activists occupied an area near police headquarters and issued calls to “decolonize City Hall.”16×16. Yezmin Villarreal, Day 50, and BLM’s Los Angeles Protest Is Still Going Strong, Advocate (Aug. 31, 2016, 1:24 PM), https://www.advocate.com/politics/2016/8/31/day-50-black-lives-matter-los-angeles [https://perma.cc/62S7-TN3J]. See generally Kelly Lytle Hernández, City of Inmates: Conquest, Rebellion, and the Rise of Human Caging in Los Angeles 1771–1965 (2017) (exploring the importance of decolonization to meaningful transformation of penal practices in Los Angeles and beyond). Across the country, contemporary movements against the violence of policing have taken up the cause of penal abolition, denouncing caging and minutely controlling human beings while re-envisioning democracy in genuinely liberatory terms. Through these abolitionist efforts — from those of organizers in Chicago confronting the decades of torture perpetrated by police, to those of people struggling together to address the aftermath of sexual assault and homicide, to those of community members organizing to ensure greater economic well-being and security — a new conception of justice has begun to emerge.

Justice in abolitionist terms involves at once exposing the violence, hypocrisy, and dissembling entrenched in existing legal practices, while attempting to achieve peace, make amends, and distribute resources more equitably. Justice for abolitionists is an integrated endeavor to prevent harm, intervene in harm, obtain reparations, and transform the conditions in which we live.17×17. Barnard Ctr. for Research on Women, Reina Gossett + Dean Spade (Part 1): Prison Abolition + Prefiguring the World You Want to Live In, YouTube (Jan. 7, 2014), https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=XDQlW1uJ8uQ [https://perma.cc/5KCJ-SM77]. This conception of justice works, for example, to eliminate the criminalization of poverty and survival while addressing the criminality of a global social order in which the eight wealthiest men own “the same amount of wealth as” fifty percent of all people on earth.18×18. Oxfam, An Economy for the 99%, at 2 (2017), https://d1tn3vj7xz9fdh.cloudfront.net/s3fs-public/file_attachments/bp-economy-for-99-percent-160117-en.pdf [https://perma.cc/SK3A-8C29]. To approach justice in these terms requires what Professor Lisa Guenther, an abolitionist philosopher, describes as “collective resistance and revolution at the scene of ‘crime’ itself.”19×19. Lisa Guenther, Solitary Confinement: Social Death and Its Afterlives 61 (2013). Such resistance begins by unmasking the illegitimacy of much of what is subject to criminalization — for instance, the prosecution of immigration offenses, which compose at present more than half of the U.S. federal criminal docket.20×20. Federal Criminal Prosecutions Referred by DHS Continue to Fall, TRAC, Syracuse U. (June 14, 2017), http://trac.syr.edu/immigration/reports/472/ [https://perma.cc/V8YH-MGRL] (reporting that, despite falling rates of prosecution in early 2017, Department of Homeland Security–referred prosecutions still accounted for 50.5% of all federal criminal prosecutions). Since 2017, immigration prosecutions have spiked. See Immigration Criminal Prosecutions Jump in March 2018, TRAC, Syracuse U. (Apr. 27, 2018), http://trac.syr.edu/immigration/reports/510/ [https://perma.cc/68WW-PPL9] (finding an estimated 19.5% increase in criminal immigration prosecutions in 2018, compared to 2017). Resistance at the scene of crime itself also entails working to eliminate existing punitive institutions while identifying meaningful forms of accountability and prevention to respond to actual violence and wrongdoing. Finally, such resistance involves addressing how mainstream economic practices and arrangements perpetrate violent theft every day in ways that can be thoroughly redressed only by democratizing political and economic institutions so as to prevent and respond to the highly unequal distribution of resources and life chances.

Whereas reformist efforts aim to redress extreme abuse or dysfunction in the criminal process without further destabilizing existing legal and social systems — often by trading reduced severity for certain “nonviolent offenders” in exchange for increased punitiveness toward others — abolitionist measures recognize justice as attainable only through a more thorough transformation of our political, social, and economic lives.21×21. See Marbre Stahly Butts & Amna A. Akbar, Transformative Reforms of the Movement for Black Lives 4–5 (Apr. 2017) (unpublished manuscript), https://law.rutgers.edu/sites/law/files/attachments/Stahly%20Butts-Akbar%20-%20Transformative%20Reforms%20of%20the%20Movement%20for%20Black%20Lives.pdf [https://perma.cc/6A24-H87Y] (“Reformist reforms do not recognize that the systems that operate on Black people, and by extension on brown, immigrant and poor people, are not fundamentally broken but instead are working to re-entrench and legitimize current power arrangements. . . . On the other hand transformative demands question the legitimacy of the systems that we operate under.”); see also Allegra M. McLeod, Review Essay, Beyond the Carceral State, 95 Tex. L. Rev. 651, 665–89 (2017) (describing the limits of contemporary criminal justice reform efforts); Allegra M. McLeod, Prison Abolition and Grounded Justice, 62 UCLA L. Rev. 1156, 1207–18 (2015) (contrasting current reformist efforts with abolitionist alternatives); Mariame Kaba, Opinion, Police “Reforms” You Should Always Oppose, Truthout (Dec. 7, 2014), https://truthout.org/articles/police-reforms-you-should-always-oppose/ [https://perma.cc/G8XT-LRDT] (offering “a simple guide for evaluating any suggested ‘reforms’ of U.S. policing in this historical moment”). To realize justice in abolitionist terms thus entails a holistic engagement with the structural conditions that give rise to suffering, as well as the interpersonal dynamics involved in violence.

This Essay argues that this abolitionist conception of justice presents a formidable challenge to existing ideas of legal justice. Whereas conventional accounts of legal justice emphasize the administration of justice through individualized adjudication and corresponding punishment or remuneration (most often in idealized terms starkly at odds with actual legal processes), abolitionist justice offers a more compelling and material effort to realize justice — one where punishment is abandoned in favor of accountability and repair, and where discriminatory criminal law enforcement is replaced with practices addressing the systemic bases of inequality, poverty, and violence.

Much of this Essay will focus on abolitionist projects unfolding in Chicago, in part because Chicago is a place where abolitionist organizing has flourished over the last decade, bringing together interracial coalitions working for immigration justice and racial inclusion, reparations, participatory budgeting, and social and economic transformation. But the sustained focus on a single place, with its particular history and present, is also an important dimension of the conception of justice embraced by contemporary abolitionists — namely, abolitionists are committed to justice grounded in experience rather than proceeding primarily from idealized and abstract premises with little attention to how those ideals are translated into actual practices.

The remainder of this Essay proceeds as follows: Part I further explores the project of abolition democracy. Part II focuses on how abolition democracy constitutes an alternative conception of justice, one that is taking shape in political mobilizations that aim to prefigure a fairer and more peaceful world without relying on prisons and police. Part III argues that this emergent conception of justice is more meaningful and transformative than existing ideals of legal justice, which all too often operate at such a degree of remove from the realities of legal processes that they lose their connection to the aim of justice altogether. By contrast, those committed to abolition democracy attend closely to and thereby begin to approach what justice actually demands.

* Professor, Georgetown University Law Center. I am grateful to Amna Akbar, Geoff Gilbert, Sora Han, Stephen Lee, and Alexandra Natapoff for their careful engagement with this Essay and to workshop participants at the University of California, Irvine School of Law. I owe thanks also to the editors of the Harvard Law Review and to librarians at Georgetown Law for their outstanding work. And I am most grateful to Sherally Munshi for her brilliant ideas and editorial guidance, steadfast support, and inspiration. This Essay is dedicated to our son, Kiran Bayard, with the hope he lives to see a world that comes closer to realizing abolition democracy.